Alien Nation


  • Romance At Short Notice
  • Thursday, 20 Feb 2014

Demonstrators display placards during a protest rally against the Australian government's asylum seeker policy in Sydney on August 24, 2013. - AFP

Earlier this month, The Global Mail published an account of a guard working in one of Australia’s detention centres. It is a harrowing piece of genius in illustrated form, the product of a series of interviews and a great deal of effort brought to stark, monochromatic life. It gets into the psychology of the people in detention centres, those confined by employment and those confined by pettiness, in a way words alone cannot.

Please take the time to read it. It is the lot of immigrant nations to be eternally and violently preoccupied with matters of immigration; and even when occasional embers of sanity like this are discovered, something happens to snuff them out. This time, it was the Australian government releasing an illustrated narrative of their own.

It is surely a coincidence, despite similarities in subject matter and vector, that these came out so close together. It is nonetheless remarkable to consider the frayed and forlorn hope of the former, and the monumentally misguided propaganda that constitutes the latter.

Look at Australia’s depiction of its navy, so stern and fearsome, so secure in their righteousness. Look at the poor asylum seeker, so misguided in his quest, so disappointing to his parents. There is no hope here for you, the latter wants you to believe. No future. Nothing but pain and tears.

Australia’s dealings with asylum seekers are needlessly political. They have been since August 2001, when a Norwegian cargo vessel called the Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers on their way to Australia. Detention centres and asylum seekers were hardly new topics, but this was not yet two years after 9/11; simmering xenophobia boiled over, Prime Minster John Howard was re-elected after successfully harnessing these tensions, and Australia has never been the same.

That’s not my take, that’s Amnesty International’s. Pardon the reliance on links – even now, it is difficult to articulate helpless rage at this injustice, at the repeated injustices perpetrated by government after government on either side of the political spectrum.

I’m not sure what you might have heard about the Tampa in Malaysia. Maybe you read more about the so-called Malaysia Solution of 2011, a plan to swap 800 people who arrived on Australia’s shores for 4000 recognised refugees based in Malaysia. The Malaysia Solution was an exceptional piece of propaganda, a solution that wasn’t for a problem that isn’t. It was ultimately prevented by the High Court, but the message from Australia was clear: these people are not our problem.

People like the lawyer and human-rights advocate Julian Burnside have been yelling the same things for years, to no avail: asylum seekers are not illegal. Many of them have escaped persecution in their home countries. They are running for their lives. Their numbers are but a tiny fraction of those who come to these shores every year. They are isolated, and alienated, and alone.

There is a whole mess of legal and moral matters that could be discussed here. I don’t know where to start, and I don’t know where to stop. What I do know is that I started to write this Wednesday night, and before I finished there were reports from Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in one of the detention centres where Australia parks those foolish enough to have believed in a future on its shores.

One person is dead, and 77 have been injured. Protests at the centre have been going on for days. Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, made a statement that asylum seekers had caused the disturbance. Refugee advocates and people inside the facility say otherwise.

Now there will be fresh inquests and accusations and outrage. While we talk about what has and hasn’t happened, simple dignities will continue to be denied. Lives will remain in limbo. And a very specific form of hatred will continue to scald everything it touches.

As Jeff Sparrow writes in the Guardian, the logic of deterrence is simple – continue to make refugees miserable until the oppression they face from Australians becomes worse than that which they’re fleeing.

I’m half Australian. We’ll save the rest of that discussion for later; for now, let’s just say the phrase is a pointlessly precise way to sum up something as imprecise and ultimately irrelevant as nationality. There are days when I am proud of this heritage. Today I am almost as mortified as I am angry.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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